Iran appears ready to fill Russian vacuum in Syria: experts
Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud
Talks have abounded since last April about Russia reducing the number of its military forces in Syria to strengthen its fighting front in Ukraine, coinciding with the slow progress on the front opened by Moscow against Ukraine since 24 February.
During the past few days, social media activists circulated a photocopy of a mobilization notice talking about the necessity of Russian citizens who were informed of such an invitation to join the military operation, noting that the authorities will review their families and relatives in the event of not joining.
The mobilization call, which came in the form of a statement, mentioned the required documents for each person notified of this matter, as translated by Enab Baladi.
The Moscow Times on 7 May said Russia had begun the process of withdrawing its military forces from Syria and is concentrating them at three airports before being transferred to the Ukrainian front.
The abandoned airbases of the Russian Federation are transferred to the Iranian military-political formation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Lebanese Hezbollah, the news site added.
The exact number of the Syrian group of Russia is currently unknown. According to the Ministry of Defense, in 2015-18, 63,000 military personnel were stationed in the country, of which almost half were officers, according to The Moscow Times.
About three months ago, the Russian war on Ukraine began, causing widespread damage to the Ukrainian infrastructure amid accusations of war crimes by Moscow during its military operation, which was met with a mobilization during which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky invested his repeated media appearances to demand European military support to confront the Russian advance whose intensity began to recede in front of the Ukrainian resistance, which received unprecedented US and European support.
Reducing military presence is an exaggeration
The expert on Russian affairs, Raed Jabr, confirmed in an interview with Enab Baladi that there is an exaggeration in the talk about reducing the Russian forces in Syria and the impact of such a step.
Jabr said that given the nature of the Russian role in Syria, even if Russia withdrew an important part of its forces, they are ineffective forces, that is, they do not fight battles, and they are present in military camps and bases, and therefore withdrawing them means their involvement in military operations in Ukraine, without affecting the situation in Syria.
Regarding the reports that dealt with Moscow reducing its forces at the expense of expanding the Iranian presence, Jabr pointed to the possibility of this, but not to an exaggerated level, stressing Israel’s interest in talking about an imminent Iranian threat to expand operations in Syria without regard to Russian objections.
The expert stressed that the presence of Russian forces in Syria is permanent and a dead thing for Moscow, and reducing the forces will not affect the combat ability, given that Moscow is able to send additional forces if necessary.
Jabr considered that expanding the Iranian presence in some areas is part of the regional game that Russia has often played in many stages of operations in Syria, ruling out the impact of this on the concentration of forces and the distribution of their balances in Syria now.
He also doubted that what is happening on the ground is “handover” in the actual sense of the word, as no party inherits the other party’s military sites in Syria, nor sites are handed over by Russia to Iran or others, but this does not undermine the possibility of partially expanding the Iranian presence, which is part of Moscow’s game, which does not allow the Iranian presence in its positions to be eternal or permanent, for only the Russian presence is eternal.
The outcome of the war, which may last for a long time in Ukraine, may decide the issue of the Russian presence and the nature of Russian policies in Syria, taking into account the effects of the Ukrainian crisis and its consequences on Russia’s policies, including in Syria, according to the expert.
Since 30 September 2015, Russia began its military intervention in Syria, and this led to the regime’s control of the center of the city of Aleppo and its eastern regions, Eastern Ghouta suburbs, Homs, Daraa, and several other areas in the de-escalation zone in Idlib, northwest Syria.
During the military intervention, the Russian Air Force launched more than 100,000 airstrikes in the skies of Syria, according to the statements of the Commander of the Russian Air Force dispatched to Syria, Yevgeni Nikiforov, on the sidelines of a celebration of the Russian forces at Hmeimim Air Base in Latakia countryside, on 12 August 2021, marking the 109th anniversary of the Day of Russian Combat Aviation.
Withdrawing forces on more than one front
During the first week of last April, the Russian forces east of Homs handed over military depots in the desert area of Mahin, the second largest arms and ammunition depot in Syria, to the Lebanese Hezbollah militia and the elite forces of the 4th Division loyal to Iran at the same time.
At the time, Asharq al-Awsat newspaper reported that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard had strengthened its military presence in Mahin warehouses following the complete withdrawal of the Russian forces and its ally, the Fifth Corps, towards the Palmyra military airport.
The Iranian reinforcements to these warehouses consisted of at least 40 military vehicles, more than 17 pickups equipped with medium machine guns, and others carrying Hezbollah members, armored vehicles, military vehicles, and forces from the 4th Division.
The warehouses contained Russian forces, elements of the Wagner mercenaries, and about 200 members of the Russian-backed Fifth Corps, according to Asharq al-Awsat.
The Russian withdrawal from Mahin opened the door to a long geographical Iranian influence extending from the Qalamoun mountain range, bordering Lebanon, to the town of Deir Atiyah, Mahin, al-Qaryatayn, and Sukhna, east of Homs, all the way to the areas of Athriya in the eastern countryside of Hama, and the oil fields in southern Tabqa in the countryside of Raqqa governorate.
Iran has recently benefited from the military situation that Moscow is experiencing and is exploiting it by strengthening many of its positions. On 22 April, also, military reinforcements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards arrived at Deir Ezzor military airport, the Russian military base in eastern Syria.
Those reinforcements included more than 40 trucks and militia members affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, according to what was reported by the local Deir Ezzor 24 network at the time.
Last April, local networks and opposition activists also talked about the withdrawal of Russian forces from Palmyra military airport and its handing over to Iranian forces.
“Red Lines” areas
The military analyst, Tariq Haj Bakri, believes that the Russian economic circumstance affects the military movement on the ground, despite Russia’s possession of a large military force on the scale of personnel, as it suffers from economic pressure in addition to the current military pressure in its border war with Ukraine.
Haj Bakri stressed to Enab Baladi that despite Russia’s benefit from the Syrian regime, this benefit has no financial return, which may push it to reduce its forces in Syria and not withdraw them completely if it finds itself obliged to spend on its forces there, in view of the deteriorating economic situation of the regime today.
On the extent to which Moscow might reduce its forces or dispense with some sites, the military analyst stressed the inability of Russia to abandon some areas, such as Hmeimim Airport and Tartus port and others, for political, not military, reasons.
Moscow has taken many military points in Syria, the largest of which are Hmeimim airport, Palmyra airport, Qamishli airport, and Deir Ezzor airport, with continuous talk since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine about the possibility of withdrawing its forces from Syria as a result of the military pressure caused by its second war.
Haj Bakri also considered that strengthening the Iranian presence in sites run by the Russians would put the Iranian forces on the front line of Israeli strikes.
Experts tell Enab Baladi that reducing the size of the Russian military force at the level of individuals in Syria may be temporary, as Russia, in its war against Ukraine, is avoiding a phase of attrition that could threaten its prestige as a superpower in the world, and therefore it is in its interest to gather its forces towards Ukraine to resolve the war because prolonging its duration means an increase in losses.
Haj Bakri indicated that it is useful in more than one way for Russia to reduce its forces in Syria, in order to avoid possible human losses in Ukraine that might create popular pressure on the one hand and to benefit from the combat experience of Russian soldiers in Syria and plunge them into the war on Ukraine, with the possibility of replacing its forces, and not only pull troops.
Last March, the Russian forces present in the city of Aleppo reduced the number of their members of the Russian Military Police in the city of Aleppo, which are stationed at the outskirts of the neighborhoods of Hamdaniya and New Aleppo, and in the vicinity of the Ramouseh district, in addition to the Jamiliya and Mashhad areas.
On 3 March, local news sites circulated a video that showed Russian armored vehicles and military vehicles in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, bearing the same Russian military slogan on the contact lines with the Turkish-backed opposition areas.
President Vladimir Putin granted the Russian Defense Ministry on 11 March the permission to transfer thousands of mercenaries from the Middle East to the participation of Russian forces in the invasion of Ukraine.
On the 4th of the same month, the Syrians for Truth and Justice organization (STJ) published a report on the participation of Syrians in the war between Russia and Ukraine.
Rivalry or nearness
Iran has sided with Moscow politically against broad sanctions imposed by various countries for its invasion of Ukraine, despite reports of a Russian-Iranian rivalry in Syria.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian visited the Russian capital, Moscow, on 15 March, during which he met his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
Abdollahian said that the first goal of the visit was to reach a good, strong, and lasting agreement in the nuclear negotiations with Russia.
The second objective is to discuss Ukraine’s developments and the current situation in the regional and international arenas, as the Iranian Foreign Minister condemned the imposition of sanctions on Russia, considering any “unilateral embargo on countries and peoples a wrong method,” according to what was reported by IRNA news agency.
Iranian-Russian relations are going through their golden age, according to the statements of the Iranian Assistant Minister of Defense for Coordination Affairs, Saeed Shaabanian, during his reception of the Russian Assistant Minister of Defense, Alexander Fomin, on 24 August 2021, in the capital, Tehran.
In the meeting, Shaabanian praised the cooperation of the two sides in Syria, saying, “It is our pleasure that relations and cooperation between Tehran and Moscow are now going through one of their best golden eras, under the will of the senior leaders of the two countries.”
He added, “Iran and Russia have had a successful experience in the field of regional and international cooperation in combating terrorism and extremism and eliminating ISIS in Syria.”
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